When I was growing up, women’s history was everywhere. I learned about Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement of the 1970s before I knew anything about the Vietnam War. In school, when we learned about John Adams, we learned about Abigail Adams right along with him; “Remember the ladies,” she said. Over the past decade or so of my feminist education, I’ve noticed how women’s history has become more inclusive. The University’s program isn’t “Women’s Studies” anymore, but “Women and Gender Studies.” This summer’s tributes to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote made sure to include how white women excluded Black women from the process. These attempts to include the experiences of all women — beyond the bra-burning, fed-up women who were mostly white — into the feminist canon are positive and necessary.
This is why the British biopic “Misbehaviour” is so important.
The film revolves around two women: Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”), an English woman whose frustrations with sexism lead her to the women’s liberation movement, and Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle”), a contestant representing Grenada in the 1970 Miss World pageant. These two women have almost diametrically opposed views, and only meet once in the film; what “Misbehaviour” tries to drive home is that even with their contrasting viewpoints, they carry a similar message.
Sally is quickly established as a passionate, intellectual feminist with her Gloria Steinem glasses and interest in women’s history. Though she wouldn’t be out of place in 2020, the men of 1970 often don’t know what to do with a young divorced woman with a child and an impressive intellect. While at a women’s conference, Sally meets Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, “Wild Rose”), a young radicalized feminist who, along with her friends, is more interested in graffiti and protests than Sally’s leaflets. As Sally starts to spend more time with Jo and her crew, there’s one thing these women can all agree on: the Miss World pageant is a sexist display of female objectification, and it needs to be stopped.
Jennifer, on the other hand, takes a different approach to the pageant, seeing her role as Miss Grenada as an opportunity. She believes that if she can win, she’ll not only be breaking apart racial barriers but providing a positive Black role model for young girls all over the world. Other contestants complain about the idiocy of the pageant’s, well, pageantry, but Jennifer refuses to give up her determination. To her, a Miss World win would mean more to women, especially Black women, than dismantling it entirely.
This is the reality of feminism: It is never the same for any one person. Feminism is an issue that needs to be approached from multiple angles. There are many different kinds of women, all of whom deserve equal rights, and so there are going to be different ways of approaching dismantling sexist structures. Even in 1970, it was impossible to define one singular understanding of a woman. They all have different needs, values and understandings of what society should look like. The position we are in as women grants us the ability to make different choices; to ignore that is to refuse to be intersectional, and feminism that isn’t intersectional is not true feminism. To be clear, the existence of beauty pageants is left over from a time of objectification and oppression. Women should not have to be considered beautiful in order to be accepted by society. But seeing the beauty pageant solely as a patriarchal institution that must be forcefully dismantled is only one potential way of creating change, only one perspective on the situation.
“Misbehaviour” does its best to recreate the mood in the 1970s so that viewers who are less familiar with the era can understand where the anger is coming from. Throughout the film, there are moments of misogyny and sexism that infuriate the feminist within. The way Sally is ignored by her colleagues, the constant mention of the beauty contestants’ bust-waist-hip measurements, the crude jokes told by pageant host Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, “As Good as It Gets”) that somehow always get a laugh — these things cumulate to a point where you can understand the sheer anger behind the Women’s Liberation Movement. That is, if you weren’t feeling it already.
“Misbehaviour” is all about raising questions. A moment in the film where the pageant director (Rhys Ifans, “The Amazing Spider-Man”) objects to a man who catcalls his wife (Keeley Hawes, “High-Rise”) but fails to see the hypocrisy: Why do men only care about the objectification of women when it’s someone they know and care about?
A series of arguments between Sally and her mother (Phyllis Logan, “Downton Abbey”) over what is the right thing to do: How do we bridge the theoretical gaps that have been made by growing up in different generations?
Bob Hope’s wife Dolores (Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”) clearly despises his philandering attitude but doesn’t seem to do much about it, which begs the question: Why do women choose to stay in disagreeable situations — or, more importantly, why do they sometimes have no other choice?
These are questions that we are still asking to this day. After a “where are they now” section that seems required for biopics, “Misbehaviour” ends with a black screen and these words: “Attempts to bring down the patriarchy remain ongoing.”
Many critics haven’t been particularly impressed with this film, and I understand why. At times, it tends to play it safe, but at others it feels like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Some of the misogyny is a bit heavy-handed — sexism is often more subtle — and there are moments that feel awkward or out of place in context. But forget all of that for a moment. Isn’t it more important that this film makes us think about something that we take for granted? The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has thrown this into the front of my mind: There are so many things that I get to do that my mother didn’t, and her mother didn’t and her mother before her certainly didn’t. The fight for women’s rights is long, and we don’t always think about the moments that have come before.
And so in this case, let’s take “Misbehaviour” for what it is: a piece of a long history of women who break expectations. It’s a film that’s written, directed and produced by women at a time when most people can’t name five female directors off the top of their head. It’s women’s history in its finest form, which tries to dispense from the single narrative and embrace the many ways one can be a woman. And at a time like this, when women’s rights are in jeopardy and the younger generations of women are angrier than ever, it’s comforting to know that we have fought like hell in the past, and we’ll keep going in the future.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.
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